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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002


Marc-Andre Hamelin

Canadian pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin was the only classical musician to play live at the 2001 Grammy Awards Ceremony, a distinction that some of his peers might find dubious and others downright horrifying. It isn't clear what benefit the gig afforded Hamelin in terms of record sales, but in a roundabout sense it fits in with his popularizing approach.

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Hamelin records for Hyperion, a record company that's famous for allowing its musicians to do anything they want. The 40-year-old pianist has released more than 20 albums, most of them covering composers you've never heard of but whom Hamelin obviously thinks you should. The reason they're not more popular is that their music tends to be complex; in other words, hard to play.

From his father, an amateur musician, he developed a liking for the difficult early-20th-century composer Leopold Godowsky. He then discovered Ferruccio Busoni, who is remembered as a Bach arranger and a friend of Mahler and little more. Hamelin actually played the Japan premiere of Busoni's monumental Piano Concerto some 90 years after it was written. Hamelin's quirkiest advocacy has been for Charles-Valentin Alkan, a weirdo who wrote seemingly postmodern music in the late Romantic Era and gave his pieces titles like "Funeral March on the Death of a Parrot."

Besides being odd and ignored and difficult, many of the men that Hamelin promotes are, like Hamelin himself, pianist-composers; which means they wrote music that challenged them as performers. Among the world's premier keyboard artists, Hamelin is sometimes dismissed as being overly concerned with technique, but the point is that he plays what he wants to play, not what some concert programmer suggests.

Two years ago, when he played New York, a local music critic reported that the half-filled auditorium was made up of scruffy students and Hamelin freaks. Once the recital started they all left their reserved seats and went to sit on the left side of the auditorium, the better to see his hands.

Next month, he'll be presenting Part 5 of his survey, "Pianism 200 Years," with (depending on where you see him) some Alkan, some Beethoven, some Schumann, a lot of Szymanowski (a modern Polish composer who died penniless, of course) and even some Hamelin. The tradition, as it were, continues.

Marc-Andre Hamelin: March 13, 7 p.m., at the Kochi Prefectural Art Museum; March 15, 7 p.m., at the Mori Hall, Sagamihara, Kanagawa Prefecture; March 16, 3 p.m., at Nova Hall, Tsukuba, Ibaraki Prefecture; March 17, 2 p.m., at Kioi Hall, Tokyo. Tickets are 4,000 yen to 6,000 yen. For more information, call the Nippon Cultural Centre at (03) 3580-0031.

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